The B-29 bomber Kee Bird made a forced landing amid the snows of far northern Greenland in 1947. The crew survived the landing and were picked up by a rescue plane two days later. The Kee Bird, though set down on her wheels and only lightly damaged, was written off as unsalvageable and left to rot. Metal airplanes rot slowly in the high Arctic, however, and even after nearly fifty years the Kee Bird remained largely intact. Nearly 4,000 B-29s were built during World War II, but by the mid-1990s less than thirty remained intact. Fifty years had turned Kee Bird from a disposable piece of junk to a valuable historical relic, and Darryl
Greenamyer went to Greenland with the intent of restoring her enough to fly her off the ice cap. B-29: Frozen in Time, an episode of the PBS science documentary series Nova, tells the story of Greenamyer’ s expedition by keeping a laser-like focus on what happens on the ice cap. A few moments are spent on Greenamyer’ s background (ex-Lockheed test pilot, air racer, holder of a low-altitude speed record set in an F-104 jet fighter assembled from surplus parts), a few on the climate of northern Greenland, and a few more on the experiences of the Kee Bird’ s crew. The rest of the film is a documentary in the straightforward and literal sense of the word:
It documents, smoothly and quietly, Greenamyer’ s preparation for and execution of his plan to salvage the Kee Bird. Nearly all of the action takes place on the tundra where the plane was set down, on a adjacent frozen lake, or at Greeamyer’ s staging area: Thule Air Force Base, 250 miles to the south and east. There are no extended, studio-based interviews and very few obviously staged conversations. Instead, the camera lingers on technical details: how to assemble an immense four-bladed propeller in the field; how, in a dire emergency, to fix a flat tire using propane in place of compressed air; how install a massive 2,000-horsepower radial engine with no hangar, no proper scaffolding, and no power tools. The members of the team offer brief comments on their progress as they pause between jobs, looking dirtier and more haggard as the brief Arctic summer passes.
Greenamyer speaks more than the rest of the team combined, but even he focuses on the job at hand rather than What It All Means. The low-key narration, delivered by actor Richard Crenna, describes the obstacles and setbacks the team faces without trying to wring unnecessary drama from them. It’ s an excellent choice: The story needs no embellishment.
Viewers interested enough in antique airplanes to invest an hour in watching this film will probably already know how the story ends. There is, in any event, no need to reveal it here. Suffice it to say that the filmmakers’ minimalist approach pays its greatest dividends in the last 10 minutes of the film, as the team lines up Kee Bird for its first takeoff in half-a-century. Great historical documentaries need not concern themselves with great historical events, and B-29:
Frozen in Time is proof of that.